Today on the Big Break, I am pleased to welcome Cat Winters, author of the amazing book, In The Shadows of Blackbirds.
Hi Cat, thanks for joining me today on the blog.
Thanks so much for hosting me.
I would love to know a little about your writing journey. What did you do before writing books?
I’ve actually been writing books since childhood. After college, I decided to seriously pursue writing as a career, and I spent fifteen years trying to break into the adult fiction market without ever landing a publishing contract. I came close several times, which is why I kept writing and submitting work, but I didn’t accomplish my long-awaited goal until I switched to young-adult fiction and wrote IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS. I’ve also worked in the publishing field, and I’ve been a blogger, a film festival literary liaison, and a mom to two kids.
Your debut book, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, is about to be published. How are you feeling right now?
Ecstatic, nervous, and relieved. My journey to get to this point was such a long and arduous one that it still seems surreal that it’s actually happening.
Can you tell us a little bit about the book for my readers who have yet to set eyes on such a delight?
IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS is the story of Mary Shelley Black, a bright, logical sixteen-year-old girl who faces World War I, the deadly Spanish influenza pandemic, and the ghost of her first love. The novel deals with the desperate search for departed loved ones through séances and spirit photography in 1918, and it’s set in San Diego, California.
Where did you get your inspiration from for it?
I first became interested in this time period when, as a kid, I watched the TV series RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT OR NOT and caught an episode about the Cottingley Fairies. In case you’re unfamiliar with that real-life story, during WWI, two girls in Cottingley, England, claimed to photograph fairies in the countryside, although they were really taking pictures of cardboard cut-outs from a book. Many adults, including photography experts and novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, fully believed that their photographs were genuine. The show informed me that people were desperate for proof of magic and paranormal phenomena during this time period because WWI was so horrifying. That strange and sad story stuck with me into adulthood and eventually led to the writing of this novel.
How long did it take you to write?
The first draft took seven months, but I had already thoroughly researched the time period before I even started. I tried writing other books that tackled the same subject matter, but I never felt I captured the era correctly until the plot for IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS struck me. I revised the book for over a year before it sold to ABRAMS. Were there times when you felt that it would never get published? If so, how did you work your way through them?
One of the reasons my adult fiction never sold to publishers was because historical fiction is such a difficult market. When my agent was getting ready to submit IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS to publishers, we started hearing the same bleak news: historical fiction is too risky. I was so frustrated that my books were always getting turned down for marketing reasons that I asked myself, “What can I possibly do to make this novel stand out?” That’s when I inserted 1918 photographs into the book. Photography plays an enormous role in the plot, so it made sense to illustrate the story with archival spirit photographs and images from the war and the flu.
Were you given any good writing advice that you would like to share with my readers?
When I was a teenager, a screenwriter gave me the old, important “Never give up” advice. We writers typically hear those words over and over again, and sometimes we just want to scream out in frustration, “Are you SURE I shouldn’t give up now?!” But I’m proof that if you keep persevering and keep improving your craft, you’ll eventually make it.
What was your first reaction when you found out your book was to be published?
Shock. I had to grab hold of my kitchen counter to keep from feeling dizzy when I was on the phone with my agent. For well over a decade, I’d been imagining what it would be like to hear those words, but I had started to believe a publishing contract would never be in my future. Just one month before I sold the book I was starting to seriously wonder if I was wasting my time chasing this dream.
Did you find it easy to get an agent?
I’ve actually had two agents. The first time around, I did find it really hard, and it took a complete overhaul of that first manuscript (a historical novel for adults) before I signed with an agency. We eventually parted ways because the historical market was incredibly dead back then, and I really wanted to keep writing historicals. The second time I searched for an agent proved to be easier. I had gained experience by then, I knew how to query, and my writing had dramatically improved. I signed with Barbara Poelle of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency in 2007, and it took us four years to sell one of my manuscripts, but she was determined to get me published. She’s a hardworking, devoted, highly entertaining, and amazing woman.
How long was it between the initial deal and publishing day?
A little over seventeen months. It’s felt like a really long pregnancy.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m in the middle of writing another Gothic YA historical novel. I’m keeping the plot secret until I’m able to divulge more info about it.
Who is the one person that cheered you on and supported you through your writing?
Numerous people have cheered me on throughout the years, but my number one fan and supporter has always been my younger sister, Carrie. She’s been reading my stories since we were kids, she’s read countless drafts of IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, and she’s even creating charm bracelets that tie in with the novel. I can’t imagine pursuing this career without her.
What advice would you give to aspiring and unpublished authors?
Read books by authors who are far superior to you so you can challenge yourself to be as good as them. Fall madly in love with your work so your passion will become the reader’s passion. And show your work to other people before you query agents. You need to submit a book that will make an editor’s jaw drop, and then she needs to get her entire editorial team on board with your project, so don’t ever rush the process and send out mediocre work.
In The Shadow of Blackbirds is published on the 2nd of April by Amulet Books. I absolutely adored this book and will be reviewing it later today on the blog.
To find out more about Cat Winters: